Gurus – Part 2 – Authority vs. Autonomy
Updated: Apr 26
The second part is based around the following two questions:
Do we still need gurus today?
Do I need a guru to ‘advance’ in yoga (whatever that might mean)?
I will be talking more from a personal perspective – so expect some bias 😉
If you have missed part 1 “Between Power and Devotion”, click here.
In recent years a lot has come up in regard to gurus misusing their power. Former students of well-known teachers have started speaking up about rough physical adjustments and sexual harassment. Some once well-established and highly thought of gurus have fallen from grace (also post-mortem) and have left the yoga scene questioning the power structures behind gurus.
This leaves me wondering: Do we still need gurus today? Do I need a guru to ‘advance’ in yoga?
I´m sharing from my own story, my own experiences and will be giving my personal conclusions. I would like to hear your thoughts as well – so leave me a comment!
When I look back at my own yoga education and training that I have received in India, none of my teachers presented themselves as unquestionable authorities. They were transmitting and passing on knowledge - yes, but they were all highlighting the importance of self-inquiry. I will regard myself lucky that there was always this notion of “check for yourself”, rather than “this is how it is”.
And I think this is what a great teacher distinguishes from a power-hungry guru – the student does not lose his/her autonomy and self-determination.
If it was the other way around, this is where my alarm signals would go off. Due to my personal upbringing and the felt sense of an overly powerful father, these days I really despise someone else telling me what to do/think/feel – someone else imposing their rules on me (sometimes to a degree that is becomes a bit extreme – I´m working on it 😉).
I have grown up feeling the pressure to perform well under the perceived authority of my father; during my teenage years I was rebelling a lot, fighting for my freedom and self-determination. This part of my personal history has left me very sensitive to any attempts of taking away from my autonomy and self-determination.
Applying this to the yoga context:
I like to read books by inspiring people, I like to listen to their talks, I like to take workshops or go to classes of teachers that I perceive as someone where I can learn something new/go deeper in my practice – I will go and listen openly, then I will test the teachings out for myself – take on what works for me and disregard what doesn’t.
To me, this is a healthy teacher-student relationship – you are open and listen attentively, then test it out for yourself and only keep what has proven to be true for you. In my eyes, this is the only guru-student relationship that we need.
Let me give you an example, something you can test out for yourself: We all know the general alignment cues used in yoga classes. Most of what we know and teach in terms of alignment comes from the Iyengar tradition. Mr. Iyengar himself came up with the alignment principles – he got to them through self-inquiry. This means that they are alignment cues that have worked for his body – that doesn´t make them true for everybody. As we all know – each body is different. (I feel this is going slightly off topic and requires another blog post…). So next time you find yourself in a yoga class where alignment cues are given, test them out for yourself, don´t just try to get your body into the desired position, use your body´s inner wisdom to guide you.
You get my point: Even if someone is sharing their truth, something that has worked for them, this doesn’t automatically imply that it will be your truth/work for you. So always check for yourself – self-inquiry is key.
In the words of Toni Packer (founder of Springwater Center, NY – known for her works on presence and meditative inquiry free from any traditions and authority):
“In direct discovery, authority dissolves. We don’t need anybody to tell us how things are when we see for ourselves.”
I find this quote sums it up perfectly – use it as your gentle reminder. You don´t need anyone to tell you what the reality is, see for yourself and you will experience the truth yourself.
I would love to hear your experiences and your thoughts on this whole guru-topic =)